Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth Scott Laderman gave a lecture last Thursday entitled “Surf Diplomacy in the Twilight of the Cold War” on how the activist culture of surfing developed globally in the Reagan era.
Laderman holds a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Laderman began his lecture by introducing the Purple Valley audience to Paul Holmes, a British-born U.S. surfer who ultimately became the editor of SURFER Magazine. After receiving a phone call from fellow surfer Jon Damm, Holmes set his sights on a surfing expedition to China. A “talent wave rider” who was named the Puerto Rican National Champ from 1973-1975, Damm inspired Holmes to lead the effort towards introducing surfing to the East. After months of planning and countless negotiations, Holmes and Damm secured their invitation and the necessary funding from private corporations. Seeking a female companion to help disprove the notion that surfing was an activity exclusively open to males, Holmes enlisted American world surfing champion Rell Sunn to join in on the trip. Laderman appreciated the innovativeness of their voyage, commenting that “surfing and cultural diplomacy are not often mentioned in the same breath, and that is a shame.”
The surfing crew that headed to China were “cultural ambassadors” and emerged as “global political actors.” Surfers denounced repression in El Salvador and boycotted South African tournaments during the apartheid, proving themselves “as far more than deadbeat ignoramuses.”
Travel was at the heart of these developments, with tourism offering both promise and peril to the surfers who elected to go on these trips. The most significant benefit was social, according to Laderman, who described that the surfers fostered positive impression of the U.S. that accompanied a growing accessibility of air travel and an expansion of America’s middle class. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had informed American passport holders that “you represent us all.” Americans traveling abroad represent not only themselves but also the U.S. on the global stage.
The surfing tourism pioneers operated off of a limited budget and emphasized greater interaction with the local communities. Laderman declared that the goal of these “roving diplomats” was to “make a contribution to peace and understanding between people of the world.” Often, however, the seemingly wandering hippies had significant luxury showered upon them. Surfing tourists were the common recipients of five-star treatment and six-course meals, the trips “becoming westerly” in the process.
On the Chinese coast, however, conditions were less elegant. The surfing presence on “the communist coast” depended on Peter Drouyn, an Australian surfer who despised the West and initially considered the expedition an “offensive on free surfing.” Yet Drouyn’s ultimate goal was to elevate surfing to a national sport in China, and he worked towards that objective for the four months he spent there.
The actions of these surfing ambassadors exemplified, according to Laderman, a “people-to-people diplomacy.” Though freedom surfers were often associated with a disdain for state power, Laderman contends that the counterrevolutionary forces present in Central America during the Reagan era served as a “wake-up call” to the violence of the period. Surfing ambassadors fought to achieve legitimacy for their causes and, in some cases, helped to collapse the “cloistered fantasy world surfers had constructed for themselves,” according to Laderman. The desire to expand the sport and the global conditions of the era left the surfing community with one definitive realization; they could not pretend to be a people apart.